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 Scottish news was in high demand in England for Shakespeare’s lifetime. From 1580 onwards, the same years Shakespeare was writing about Scotland in plays like Henry VI Part 1 and later Macbeth, which features Scotland prominently, the rate of news about events in Scotland being published in England skyrocketed. This increase can be attributed to an expansion in news publications over a broader landscape, but events involving Mary Queen of Scots and her son future James VI, including rumors that Elizabeth I of England wanted to kidnap the baby James and England sending an army to Scotland, all added fuel to the fire of political relationships between the two countries that was written about furiously in this period. Shakespeare’s works reflect this cultural moment when we see Lepidus in Antony and Cleopatra is saying, “Here’s more news” from Act I Scene 4, in the early 1600s, along with over 300 additional references to “new” in Shakespeare’s plays. Here with us today to share with us what news stories were the biggest headlines for this period, as well as what the surviving printed works of news tell us about the relationship between Scotland and England for the late 16th and early 17th century is our guest and author of “Newes from Scotland” in England, 1559–1602 for the Huntington Library Quarterly, Amy Blakeway.  

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Dr Amy Blakeway is a Senior Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of St Andrews, where she teaches and researches sixteenth-century Scotland. She is the author of two books, Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland and Parliament and Convention in the Personal Rule of James V of Scotland, 1528-1542.   

I’ll be asking Amy Blakeway about:

  • During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Elizabeth I dispatched an army to Scotland, and some of the news printed about Scotland includes Elizabeth’s own publication explaining her presence there. Amy, what was the official relationship between England and Scotland during the late 16th century and before the reign of James I? Had they been enemies, were they now allies?  
  • Amy writes that Scotland was, obviously, a foreign country to England in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but that the affairs of Scotland related to Mary Queen of Scots and James VI, specifically, were of urgent domestic significance. Amy’s work cites the pamphlet Leicester’s Commonwealth, as an example of how Scotland’s newsworthy events were of prime importance in England. Amy, explain this pamphlet to us, who published it, and was it banned in Scotland?  
  • What was the time delay between when events occurred and when the news publications reached England? What time frame constitutes “current events” for Shakespeare’s lifetime in terms of published news stories? 
  • …and more!

Holindshed’s Chronicles

The Holinshed Chronicles Project

We discuss the following two books in the episode but unfortunately they are only available behind a paywall on Early English Books Online (EEBO).

The Aesop image: The fabulous tales of Esope the Phrygian, Euery tale moralized most aptly to this present time, worthy to be read.. compiled moste eloquently in Scottishe metre by Master Robert Henrison, & now lately Englished. ; – Early English Books Online – ProQuest – it’s not the one which says ‘corrected’ on the  frontispiece though, that’s David Lindsay which is also on EEBO.

Introduction – Aldis updated | National Library of Scotland (nls.uk)

A dialogue betweene experience and a courtier, of the miserable estate of the worlde first compiled in the Schottishe tongue, by Syr Dauid Lyndsey … ; now newly corrected, and made perfit Englishe … ; hereunto are anexid certaine other pithy pieces of woorkes inuented by the said knight … – Early English Books Online – ProQuest

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“Then once more to your Scottish prisoners. Deliver them up without their ransom straight, And make the Douglas’ son your only mean For powers in Scotland.”

— Earl of Worcester, Henry IV Part 1 (I.3)

Front page of a 1580s printed edition of Leicester’s Commonwealth | Unknown author | Public Domain | Source

Scottish News in Leicester’s Commonwealth

Amy writes that Scotland was, obviously, a foreign country to England in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but that the affairs of Scotland related to Mary Queen of Scots and James VI, specifically, were of urgent domestic significance. Amy’s work cites the pamphlet Leicester’s Commonwealth, as an example of how Scotland’s newsworthy events were of prime importance in England.

“By the time we are thinking about Leicester’s Commonwealth this is the early 1580s, Mary Queen of Scots is imprisoned, James VI is on the throne in Scotland and Elizabeth I isn’t going to have children herself. This pamphlet claims to be a letter recording a conversation between two learned people in Cambridge coming down to London. As the pamphlet develops, it’s not just an attack on Elizabeth’s favorite, Leicester, or insulting him, but it is an argument that Mary Queen of Scots should be Queen instead of Elizabeth. It’s highly controversial, there’s secrecy around the author, we still don’t even know their identity, and Elizabeth was quite angry about it. Mary’s supporters are thrilled with it, writing to Philip of Spain getting him to read it. Elizabeth I asks James VI to ban it in Scotland, and he does. The pamphlet was tainting James with associations of treason, so he’s willing to push it away. James was born 1566, by the early 1580s, James is really only mid-teens, and historians debate when exactly he starts to rule in his own right. However, by the mid 1580s, James is asserting adult authority, and something that emerges really early as part of this is asserting his Kingship. Issues like Elizabeth were high on his priority list.”

The upper portion of this illustration of Doctor Fian, is from a woodcut in Newes from Scotland| from James VI and I’s News From Scotland (1591) | Public Domain | Source

“…there is not such a word Spoke of in Scotland as this term of fear.”

— Henry IV Part I (IV.1)

Oral rumours from travellers | A generic picture of Lords meeting Ladies, used amongst other things for illustrating “Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches” in the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles | Public Domain | Source

Scottish news in Manuscripts and Letters

One main way that news travelled from Scotland to England was via letters and manuscripts. From a modern perspective, we think that a manuscript is private, but that’s not accurate for the 16th century. Letters are designed to be shown and read by multiple people, which is one reason we see letters being read as monologues on stage in Shakespeare’s plays. Letters were very performative compared to letters we send and receive today.

For the 16th century, manuscripts have an advantage on print because the amount of time it takes to setup a press. If you want something in a dozen copies for sending to just a handful of strategic recipients, then manuscripts are faster. Manuscripts are rapidly crossing the border in the form of official diplomatic reports as well as rumors from travelers.

Marriage contract between James VI and Anne of Denmark. Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives | Public Domain | Source

While the English place a premium on news from Scotland, the Scots are also keen on helping that information travel. As an example, when James VI and Anne of Denmark were married, the announcements of their marriage arrived in London quickly and accurately. We can confirm the nuptials with financial documents as well as diplomatic reports that corroborate the announcement. However, the publications are also propaganda, because it’s announcing the daughter of a King married an adult James VI who is being a good King, and a good Protestant. In England this representation of James is attractive because Elizabeth is aging and there’s no real plan for her successor. By contrast, James is married, he’s Protestant, and he will have children. So the publication of his marriage is also to send a message about what a great option for the future King of England James might make. 

This all needs to be carefully thought through because the English crown is choosy about what information they want circulated from Scotland. Scotland, as well, are choosy about what information they want circulated in England. When the Earl of Morton is accused and then executed for being involved in the death of Lord Darnley, the event is shocking and concerning especially in England because Morton was very pro-English, very keen on Protestant alignment and worked well for a long time with England. Surviving documents from this time period show that England not only had knowledge of the event, but several documents of reports, including espionage reports, supporters going into exile, and other documentation on the Earl of Morton’s actions, trial, and execution, but none of these documents are printed. There are no proclamations made. This is one example where we see the English government having good quality information on events in Scotland and deliberately choosing not to let any of that bleed out. 


“O Scotland, Scotland!”

— Macbeth (IV.3)

London Printers Larger than Those in Edinburgh

In her publication, Amy writes that Richard Field, the same man who printed Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and grew up in Stratford Upon Avon with the bard, printed Scottish works for publication in England. Richard Field cannot really be considered a source of information, however, because he was choosing stories he knew would sell well, as opposed to gathering news information to distribute it himself.

The Battle of Lepanto, engraving by Martin Rota Kolunic (Martinus Rota) c. 1540-1583 | Public Domain | Source

He’s the printer which is not responsible for writing or production. Richard Field’s primary interest was in making a profit. It is interesting to look at what he chose to publish, though, because we can believe that there was demand for the works he selected. Field printed two Scottish publications, one called The Lepanto by James VI, celebrating a Catholic victory against the Ottoman fleet. This publication This publication showed James’s learning as a poet as well as displaying militant Christian credentials and the fact that Richard Field is printing it suggests there was a reader demand for that kind of content.

The other Scottish publication printed by Field is A Discoverie of the Unnatural and Traiterous conspiracie of Scottish Papists, against God, his Church, their native Countrie, the Kings Maiesties person and estate: Set downe, as it was confessed and subscribed by Maister George Ker […] : [Davidson, John] : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. This publication demonstrates that Richard Field is interested in what was happening in Scotland, and the story is safe to print because it’s critical of Catholics. The work introduces James VI to an English audience as someone who defeats a Catholic conspiracy in his own country, so Richard Field is selecting pieces that will sell well and fly well politically in England. 

Other places that you see Scottish news making its’ way to England is through English diplomats. Part of their official job in Scotland was to learn news, and then go to printers to buy copies of printed news for Elizabeth and William Cecil. Occasionally, you will see Cecil taking these documents to his favored printers in England to have that information sent out publicly.


“Hail, King of Scotland!”

— Macbeth (V.8)

Translating from Scots to England

Image of Aesop from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Published in 1493. | Public Domain | Source

For the 16-17th century, Scots was understood to be a separate, although closely related language, to English, and many diplomats understood enough Scots to communicate in Scotland on their visits. However, for many in England the Scots language was considered a corrupted version of English, one that was certainly inferior to English. Title pages of news pamphlets will not say “translated” but instead they write that the words have been “corrected” or “moderated.” The hierarchy of language between English and Scots reflects the English claims to overlordship of Scotland. However, this perspective is not universal. English visitors will write that the Scots are speaking like those in the North of England, and there’s an appreciation of Scots poetry and literature in England, as well. 

German woodcut of Aesop’s Chauntacleer and the Fox | Public Domain | Source

One literary example of an appreciation for Scots language is in the translation of Aesops Fables. in 1577, Robery Henryson translated Aesop’s original Greek into Middle-Scots, and later, Richard Smith of England translates Henryson’s work into English, and Dedicates his work to Richard Stonely, a teller in the Exchequer of Elizabeth I. This shows that a translation from Scots has an association with lower echelons of government. 

After Smith’s dedication, he inserts an opening poem in the form of a dialogue between himself and Aesop who he has encountered walking in London’s main book market, St Paul’s Churchyard, dressed in Scottish fashion. Aesop asked Smith to translate his book out of Scots into English verse, explaining that although he agreed that Henrysoun was a ‘Scottish Orpheus’, English readers did not appreciate his work because ‘They do not care for Scottishe books/they list not looke that way’. This was a rare example of a Scottish book described as ‘translated’, rather than ‘corrected’ and shows the range of complicated attitudes towards each other and relationships between English and Scottish writers, printers and readers in the final part of the sixteenth century’ 

Learn more about Moray’s assassination

Hear Allan Kennedy share the history of the Marian Civil Wars, that time when Scotland was at war with each other over Mary Queen of Scots having, and then losing, the throne of Scotland. It was Moray’s assassination that played a key role in this conflict. Learn more in this related episode.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!